Graphic look at the ad­ven­ture-lov­ing fa­ther of zom­bies

Wil­liam Seabrook, an al­co­holic with a pen­chant for hon­est writ­ing, had a dark side

Toronto Star - - LIFE - SUE CARTER METRO

Hamil­ton car­toon­ist Joe Oll­mann first dis­cov­ered Wil­liam Seabrook’s bi­og­ra­phy in a zom­bie an­thol­ogy 11 years ago, and was in­stantly taken. Seabrook — who is cred­ited with in­tro­duc­ing the word “zom­bie” into con­tem­po­rary cul­ture with his 1929 best­selling book The Magic Is­land — was a he-man ad­ven­turer who trav­elled with the Be­douin and stud­ied voodoo prac­tices in Haiti. He also hung out with var­i­ous in­tel­lec­tu­als and artists of the era, in­clud­ing Gertrude Stein, Man Ray and Al­dous Hux­ley. But the more Oll­mann dug into the de­tails of Seabrook’s life, the more sala­cious the de­tails got. He dis­cov­ered an un­re­pen­tant al­co­holic with an equally un­re­pen­tant and sadis­tic pen­chant for bondage. Oh, and he once tried can­ni­bal­ism. “It’s not the aber­ra­tions that in­ter­est me so much as it is his hon­esty in writ­ing about them,” Oll­mann says. “In a very re­pressed time dur­ing the ’30s and ’40s, this guy’s writ­ing openly about bondage and can­ni­bal­ism for ma­jor pub­lish­ers and places like Ladies’ Home Jour­nal. Peo­ple hide their weird­ness and he never did.”

For five years, Oll­mann read ev­ery­thing about and by Seabrook he could get his hands on, in­clud­ing his first book, Ad­ven­tures in Ara­bia, about his time liv­ing in the Mid­dle East, and Asy­lum, which chron­i­cles Seabrook’s vol­un­tary stay in a men­tal hos­pi­tal for al­co­holism.

“He had this crazy fas­ci­nat­ing life but no one knows about him,” says Oll­mann, who then spent an­other five years ded­i­cated to re­search­ing the writer’s life for his new graphic novel, The Abom­inable Mr. Seabrook.

While gath­er­ing back­ground in­for­ma­tion, Oll­mann trav­elled to the Univer­sity The Abom­inable Mr. Seabrook of Ore­gon, which houses the ar­chives of Seabrook’s sec­ond wife, the nov­el­ist Mar­jorie Wor­thing­ton. In her writ­ings and let­ters, Oll­mann dis­cov­ered a harsher side of the man.

“He tells his sto­ries very blithely and puts it in these very hu­mourous terms,” Oll­mann says. “Her per­spec­tive is much darker. I didn’t want to por­tray him as all bad, but there is a lot of bad to be said. It is hard to live with a per­son who is an al­co­holic. He never showed it but other peo­ple did, so it was only fair for me to show it, too.”

Seabrook died in 1945 from tak­ing an over­dose of sleep­ing pills — by then his work was ba­si­cally for­got­ten. The only writ­ing he did later in life was more in the writer-for-hire vein.

One of the in­ad­ver­tent ef­fects of work­ing on The Abom­inable Mr. Seabrook was that Oll­mann him­self quit drink­ing. While labour­ing away in his home stu­dio at night, Oll­mann would keep a bot­tle of whisky or co­gnac on hand for sip­ping, and although he stopped mostly for health pur­poses and not di­rectly be­cause of Seabrook: “I was con­stantly writ­ing and draw­ing him drink­ing. There are so many pic­tures of him drink­ing be­cause it was so much part of his story,” he says. “I got sick of draw­ing and show­ing some­one ru­in­ing their life with booze.”

Oll­mann spec­u­lates that Seabrook’s down­fall was in part due to his al­co­holism, but also be­cause, later in life, he gave up his ad­ven­tur­ing ways, set­tling down in the Hud­son Val­ley to present tea-time talks to so­cial groups. His is a cau­tion­ary tale in­deed, but Oll­mann — who re­cently il­lus­trated the cov­ers and wrote in­tro­duc­tions for reis­sues of The Magic Is­land and Asy­lum — re­ally wants peo­ple to dis­cover the man’s writ­ing.

“His first books are won­der­ful, ad­ven­ture-travel books,” Oll­mann says. “He wrote about trashy sub­jects but he wrote about them smarter than you would have ex­pected.” Sue Carter is the edi­tor of Quill and Quire.

by Joe Oll­mann, Drawn & Quar­terly, 316 pages, $26.95.

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